'Greeks Bearing Gifts' will be the penultimate in the popular 'Bernie Gunther' series begun in Nazi Germany

The 'Bernie Gunther' books were uniformly superb and reflected  their hangdog protagonist: tough, cynical, very quotable, and ultimately, even quixotically, idealistic.

Greeks Bearing Gifts By Philip Kerr Penguin Publishing Group 528 pp.

As the reading world only just recently learned to its shock and sadness, Philip Kerr's 13th novel starring his glum everyman hero Bernie Gunther will be one of his last: The author died in late March (leaving one novel scheduled for posthumous publication later this year or next). [Editor's note: This review originally mistook the date of publication of the final Bernie Gunther novel.] Kerr left behind a wide shelf of work, including half a dozen children's books, but it's a safe bet that his literary immortality rests squarely on the slumped shoulders of his inimitable signature character. For novel after novel, Bernie Gunther did his best to thread the hazardous path between power and principle as a homicide detective working in Germany under the Nazis.

The books were uniformly superb, and they tended to reflect their hangdog protagonist: they were tough, cynical, very quotable, and ultimately, even quixotically, idealistic. Bernie Gunther tried his best to live a full life even in his impossible position; the books chart his friendships and his love life and meals, his half-hearted and doomed attempts to scrape together a normal life in a Berlin turned into a nightmare city. Bernie often found himself dealing with the highest echelons of the Nazi state, and he was often caught between the machinations of the Reich and urgings of his own sense of right and wrong. 

In the latest novel, Greeks Bearing Gifts, that conflict is ostensibly over. The year is 1956, and the setting is Munich, where Bernie Gunther, now going under the name “Christoph Ganz,” works as a mortuary attendant at a hospital, finding something vaguely symmetrical about cleaning dead German bodies all shift long and daydreaming about being anywhere else (“I sincerely hope,” he thinks, “that one night I will go for a drink and wake up as an amnesiac on a steamer that's headed for nowhere I've ever heard of”).

As the novel opens, in other words, he's about as content as Bernie Gunther can ever be. “I get paid sufficient to drive a car, eat sausage, and drink enough beer to be drunk once a week, not necessarily in that order,” he reflects. “In Germany we call that making a living.”

He's dragooned away from this life into a case investigating an insurance claim by a former Wehrmacht soldier who served in Greece during the war and may have been trafficking loot stolen from Jews being deported to Auschwitz. Bernie suddenly finds himself on track for an awkward encounter with his past. 

And in true Bernie Gunther form, it ends up being even more awkward than he expected: before he can talk with the ex-soldier, the ex-soldier is murdered in an extravagantly gaudy way. And the murder method is familiar to a new character, Lieutenant Leventis, who's convinced he investigated this same killer during the war. Leventis had suspicions back then about the killer's identity, and he convinces Bernie that this same killer is at work in 1956 Athens. 

Leventis is motivated to convince Bernie because Bernie is still Bernie: underneath his pseudonym and his postwar guardedness, he's still a preternaturally sharp detective, though he himself downplays it: “I guess it's true what they say: Detectives are simply people who persist in asking obvious or even stupid questions.” Bernie Gunther doesn't ask stupid or obvious questions, and soon he and Leventis are deeply embroiled in an adventure that deepens with every chapter. 

“Frankly, I did a few things during the war of which I'm less than proud,” our glum hero observes at one point. “That's not unusual. That's what war's about.” Readers of the Bernie Gunther novels over the years will remember some of the moral grey areas Philip Kerr has described in such absorbing detail, although they won't be as hard on the hero as he is on himself. “Our lives are shaped by the choices we make, of course,” that hero thinks in this latest novel, “and more noticeably by the choices that were wrong.”

"Greeks Bearing Gifts" ends in familiar territory: Bernie Gunther, having haphazardly survived yet another deadly adventure, stands poised on the brink of a future that may be very different from the one he's been imagining for the length of the book. 

The novel itself is every bit as powerful and atmospheric and addictively page-turning as all the ones that came before it, but the final pages are extra bittersweet because there will be no more. Kerr's estate may authorize future novels, and for years there's been talk of Bernie Gunther appearing on the small or big screen (it's a role Christoph Waltz was born to play). But the master's hand is now still; mystery lovers have this one last book to savor.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to 'Greeks Bearing Gifts' will be the penultimate in the popular 'Bernie Gunther' series begun in Nazi Germany
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today